I’m setting my next novel in Berkeley, California. Folks ask me, “What is it about?” and I am challenged to give a coherent, short answer. “It’s a story about a girl who witnesses a murder…” I begin. But then, of course, it is so much more, and where do I truly begin, I wonder.
In some ways the theme is about borderlands, the edges of civilization. I believe our own culture is slowly returning to a wilderness state, with the borders of law, manners, social behavior redrawn each day, shrinking. We have been living in a darkening age for some time, a twilight time, but the night seems to be falling swiftly.
Berkeley is a perfect setting for a discussion about borders, for it sits between parkland wilderness and bay waters. Fire trails protect the townspeople from the dry hills above and hopefully break a wildfire’s path. The hills have known devastating blazes that devoured communities, so fire is no small threat. But other threats lurk as well, with a rise in crime in the civilized cities that form a necklace around the San Francisco Bay. Berkeley shelters its share of crime with lenient laws that encourage drug use, theft, and other violent means of self-expression.
Berkeley is also set in a landscape of intellect and passion, of mind and matter. Here the University of California, one of the greatest schools in the world, has birthed major scientific discoveries. The arts thrive as well, those expressions of our thoughts and beliefs and deepest desires. And yet traditional core curriculum is crumbling, no longer requiring a study of the past to understand the present. Gender and racial studies replace history, as though a narcissistic self-examination of skin and sexuality will throw light on civilization and what it means to create and foster civil society.
Berkeley’s early beginnings were Ohlone Indian, then Spanish, then Irish Catholic, having been settled by an Irish farmer (James McGee) who gave land to the Catholic Presentation Sisters for a convent and school. The city was named in 1866 after an Irish Anglican bishop, George Berkeley (1685-1753) because of a line in the following poem:
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
from Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America
The first line became shortened later to the cry “Westward ho!” The line also became the title and subject of a mural by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutz (1861), which can be found in the House of Representatives behind the western staircase. The phrase and painting represent the idea of manifest destiny.
The “course of empire,” of course, was thought to be at one with the advancement of civilization. The British Empire was and is a civilization built upon classical and Christian traditions, laws and values. As these authorities lose their power and persuasion, civilization loses as well, and cracks and fissures give way to a crumbling.
This week is the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, when “time’s noblest offspring” – America – legalized the killing of unborn children. Since that day, 41 years ago, 56,662,169 unborn babies have been killed by abortion. And we continue the killing, with 1,382 lives – daughters and sons, nieces and nephews – lost yearly. January 22, 1973 was a watershed moment in our history, a time when we turned in upon our own people, to feed upon our own humanity.
It has been said that when we do not respect human life – the unborn or the aged, the infirm or the ugly or the handicapped – we encourage a culture of crime. We look out for ourselves, not others. We take what we can when we can as long as we can. Moral parameters become defined by legal boundaries; individual conscience does not matter. Soon it does not exist.
January 22 hits me by surprise each year, like a slap in the face, and I join in the crying of those who march upon the capitols of our land. I cry with them to return civilization to our once great and generous and loving country. I suppose the surprise comes to me each year because this memorial anniversary arrives so soon after the birth of the Christ Child in the humble manger, the child that would love us no matter our abilities, looks, health, age, no matter if we breathed outside the womb or not.
So we are as a nation in a shadowy borderland, a shadowland, between civilization and the jungle. A fire trail runs around our cities, but can’t always protect us from the blaze, the inferno of self. When such a trail becomes God’s fire of purgation, a cleansing of these sins through repentance and forgiveness, only then can we love as we are meant to love – love even the unborn, even our neighbors, even, even, even…
May God have mercy on our people, and may all victims of violence be comforted and redeemed by his great love.